There was some extended discussion of a question that was on the verge of being closed here: Does the massive edit to “Playing sports - does swimming count?” really “clarify the English question”? If so, for whom?

It prompted me to post an answer that really should have been a question. Essentially it looked to me like a question that was really a valid question might have been close-voted because it began by stating "This is a common IELTS speaking exam question: Do you play any sports?" (The original question is here for convenience: Playing sports - does swimming count?)

There is an excellent answer outlining when exam questions are on- or off-topic here: Does this stackoverflow forum answer questions related to IELTS?

I'm curious what experienced users have observed over time about how IELTS or other exam related questions tend to be treated on the site, and what your reactions tend to be. Is there any merit to this theory about the votes for closure on the swimming question?

Here I'll include the text I had originally posted as an answer:

I agree with English Student that the question didn't warrant close-votes. I suspect one reason for the CVs might be that some users possibly have a knee-jerk reaction to IELTS questions. I noticed that one of the close-votes remaining (one must have been retracted) uses "proofreading is off-topic," which seems to me to indicate that the close-voter didn't thoroughly read the question, since it has nothing to do with proofreading.

I'm curious if other more experienced users have insight into this sort of reaction to questions explicitly posted as exam-related. Is that something that tends to warrant closing? Am I wrong in suspecting that the close-vote for proofreading was a mistake, or that it was possibly related to the IELTS context?

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    It's just my observation that there are actual IELTS teachers on both ELL and ELU, but they answer IELTS questions mainly when it's asked on ELL, because most people taking this test are learners, and ELL is dedicated to helping learners.
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 2:53
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    Unfortunately, the majority of newcomers who tag their questions as ielts, are for essay proofreading requests. Why they do not read the tag description, I don't know. I suspect, that at least one close voter had a knee jerk reaction on seeing ielts. Dumb people, i.e. users who pass sweeping judgements w/o reading the context exist, even, on El&U. That said, the question didn't get closed, the question was edited, the question was answered.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 5:09
  • @NVZ I'm pretty certain the majority of questions on EL&U are from learners with varying levels of proficiency. It's not enough to say "learner" because there are also native speakers who ask basic grammar questions, whose answers can be easily found. There is; however, a small group of hardcore users who are VTC too many questions, w/o thinking how those questions could be improved and made more interesting. Mostly, users positively intervene is when they want to post their own answer, which is not in the best interests of the site
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 11:07
  • One problem I find with many of these questions is that (assuming the test has been transcribed accurately) very often the tests are ill-designed or simply wrong. It's not surprising that folks have difficulty with them. That said, I don't think it's the task of this community to go about critiquing all the tests.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 14:56
  • Ancient artefact, but possibly relevant: How to deal with homework questions
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 18:35
  • Excellent responses everyone, thanks. It occurred to me that it would be nice to have a warning to new posters that appears when "IELTS" is in the text: "Please make sure that your question is about usage of the English Language generally" or something. I'm just speculating right now, because honestly a lot of warnings appear when a user posts a new question, so to post a "please look at my essay" question means you've already ignored a long streak of indicators that you're veering way off topic, so maybe an exam-specific feature would be beating a dead horse. Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 20:51
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    Regarding the question in your title: one of the main problems I find with exam-question posts is that they lack context. For example, you might get a multiple-choice question where one could dream up valid contexts for several of the answers, but the marking sheet agrees with only one of them. Justifying a phrasing as 'the best' often depends on its context - but of course, no further context is forthcoming. This can either lead to a degeneration to opinions or require a treatise or research paper to address the fundamental issue, neither of which is a good fit for Stack Exchange.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 23:15
  • The questions which are thinly disguised rants about the shortcomings (perceived and/or real) of exams they have taken are not acceptable. Why does there need to be any reference at all to IELTS or Klingon Academy English Highers etc when 'Is swimming classed as a "sport" ? 'is sufficient (provided it is backed by some research)? I'm convinced that some of the 'English' expected in the various exams etc we see mentioned on ELU fails to agree with that licensed by any of the best grammars. There are of course grey areas when even the top grammarians / dictionary panels aren't in agreement, ... Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 20:44
  • but these are what we really can try to get to grips with. Advising questioners on how to meet exam requirements (or the pronouncements of specific style guides) where a different authority may have conflicting requirements is not about general English. Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 20:47

1 Answer 1


Quite apart from the "Please correct my essay" questions, which are obviously and egregiously off-topic, I think there's a right way and a wrong way to ask questions relating to exams.

A question asking "How do I pass this exam? What answer is the examiner looking for?" is the wrong way. We are not experts in every syllabus and marking scheme.

A question which would be on-topic here would be one asking about the English involved. "What is wrong with my answer to X? I encountered that question in an exam and wrote Y, because Z. My dictionary/textbook/course notes include A and B which appear to support my conclusion. Was I right? Is it possible to determine why the 'correct' answer was actually Q?" Include links to dictionaries and textbooks and even the question if possible. Such a question could be more speculative ("I'm expecting to be asked...") which might preclude mentioning Q, but everything else could be included.

At the risk of being slightly unfair, let's use a concrete example.

This is a common IELTS exam question: do you play any sports?

How do you answer that if you're a professional swimmer? In my mind 'playing sports' implies team sports (I play football, I play basketball, etc.), you don't say "I play swimming".

So, the the point:

  • Do you play any sports?
  • I do/I don't...

Yes, they do expect you to answer "do you..." questions with "I do, I don't...".

That, I think, is more of the first form than the second, although it's a far better question than a simple "What's the answer?" request. There has been some analysis of the problem. But it is slightly muddled: it's asking whether sports means "team sports" and whether team sports includes swimming. It does include my A and B with "'Do you...' questions need 'I do/don't'", but the main question is explicitly "How do I answer, What is the examiner looking for?"

Even if it's possible to explain the problem in a more structured way, I don't think we can get away from the "How do I answer this?" issue.

A common IELTS exam question is "Do you play any sports?"

IELTS expects questions starting "Do you..." to be answered using the main verb (play in this case) with "I don't" if that's needed.

"Do you play any sports?"
→ "Yes, I play football."
→ "No, I don't play anything like that."

In my mind, play any sports implies a team sport like football or basketball. Play doesn't really work with swimming (even though that can be a team sport with competitive relay races) or pole-vaulting or triathlon. But I need to mention swimming so that any follow-up questions are about something I can speak about. I'm a swimmer; I know nothing about football.

Is it possible to answer a question "Do you play...?" with an answer about swimming or athletics?

That is at least a concrete question, although the answer is probably a simple "No". Arguably, it's still possible to analyse the question as being really "What is the purpose of this question and what is the examiner expecting me to say?" but I believe that's off-topic, because it's a question about the exam itself and not the principles of the English in the answer.

However, because the question is about a learner's English exam, it may fall into the fairly broad category of "Other practical problems you encounter or face while learning English" (my emphasis) which is on-topic on ELL.

An answer to the question suggesting something like

"Do you play any sports?"
→ "I'm a competitive swimmer."
→ "I'm a world-class marathon runner."

would be Not An Answer. Even though those replies are perfectly reasonable in normal conversation, steering the topic from sport in general to the particular, they do not fit the criteria they need to. I suppose it might be possible to suggest

"Do you play any sports?"
→ "I don't play any team sports, but I'm a competitive swimmer."

but then we need to know whether that would satisfy the syllabus and the expected answer. I don't believe we're collectively qualified to answer that; and even if it were possible the answer might be wrong with next year's syllabus.

A question such as I suggest in my third paragraph above is likely to be objectively answerable, and the answer is unlikely to change much over time. I think we can answer those questions.

  • Thank you, great answer. It sounds to me like the more the answer is bound to the expectations of the exam, the more off-topic it is. Would you agree? So if the original question just removed the IELTS reference completely, as in, "How do you answer the question 'do you play any sports?' if you're a professional swimmer... in English, would one say, 'I do play sports,' or would additional qualification be necessary?'" would this be close to on-topic? Let's say if a few references to research effort were shown? Or at that point would it still be a better candidate for ELL? Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 20:45
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    I think I would agree with your first sentence. But a question like you suggest would be liable to closure as Not A Real Question, if that reason still existed. It's not obviously a real situation experienced by the asker, because it's contrived for an exam. I do think we can only answer questions about English, and in an exam situation that's limited to questions of the form I suggest. However, if it's possible to present other arguments then I'm prepared to be persuaded.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 20:59
  • @RaceYouAnytime The crux of the problem would seem to be that OP considers swimming is not the type of sport you 'play' and is concerned about the form of the question 'do you play any sports': how to answer with reference to swimming within the apparently structured format of IELTS? Removing the entire reference to IELTS in order to keep the Q on-topic would therefore make the whole question more ambiguous as in leaving us no context to work with -- and we should never forget that as a new user OP simply wants a clear answer and is absolutely not concerned with what is off-topic at ELU! Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 22:16

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